Thursday, August 4, 2011

Day 7: Washington, D.C. (62.4 miles)

Today began in a familiar place. Of the two big bike trips I have done, only today's segment was one I had done before in its entirety. So, there were no real surprises on the route.  I knew pretty much what the terrain would be like, where the good places to stop would be, and so on.

I got started just at 9:00 AM from the hotel and made my way downtown to the bridge.  The path that crosses the river does so as the footpath on a rail bridge.  You have to walk your bike across and then carry it down a spiral staircase, which is cast iron grate and can give you vertigo.  But the walk across does afford you some beautiful views of Harper's Ferry and the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers.

The trail I took home is the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Trail, the old towpath for the canal that linked Georgetown with Cumberland, Maryland 150 miles away.  The canal was a marvel of engineering in its day but was quickly made obsolete with the coming of the railway. There are some sections of the canal that have water in them, some that are even like recreational lakes, some where the canal boats still take tourists through the locks, and some parts that are completely overgrown and if you didn't know that there had been a canal along the way, you wouldn't necessarily figure that out.

The path itself is compacted sand and gravel, smoother in some parts more than others.  In fact, it's the part that's closest to D.C. that I find the most gravelly and annoying.  But the overwhelming majority of the path is covered by a lush canopy of trees that keeps the path cool and prevents the sun from beating down on you.  In the morning when I left, the sky was overcast.  I wasn't complaining; I was still reeling from some of those really hot days a few days ago.  It was a bit more humid but not unbearably so.

About an hour and a half into the ride, the sun broke through and it warmed up a little.  Not too bad, since I was biking mostly in shade anyway.  About twenty minutes before 11, I passed that couple that I'd met the night before.  They were off to the side of the road at a picnic area talking with some other bikers.  I slowed down and said hi and that I was heading on toward White's Ferry where I'd take a break and that if they stopped there I'd probably see them there.  I smiled a little bit as I biked away; they'd clearly left before I had, but I'd caught up to them and gone past.  Now, these are experienced cyclists--they'd come all the way from Pittsburgh and this kind of trip is something they do all the time.  So, I felt good that I was making good time compared with folks who do this all the time.

A few miles down the path was White's Ferry, pretty much the only way across the Potomac between the Beltway and the US-340 bridge in Harpers Ferry.  They have a little convenience store there and not long after I pulled in so did the couple (whose names I never got, nor they mine, oddly, but as they are from Missouri, I'll just call them the Missourians).  We sat for a while in the seating area at the convenience store and snacked for a bit.  The guy working there was also a cyclist but was something of a "topper".  That is, if you said, as the Missourians did, that they'd biked from Pittsburgh averaging about 60 miles a day, he'd say, "I once went on a bike trip with my 8 year old cousin and it was amazing: he could go 50 miles a day."  Or if you said, as I did, that I was finishing a 350 mile trek through the Virginias, he'd say, "I once did a 962 mile trip in 12 days." So, yeah.

The Missourians headed out planning to have a fuller lunch down the trail.  I decided to linger a little bit and eat a little more substantially.  The other nice thing about White's is the outdoor picnic area (which was initially filled by some kind of girls bike camp--I think that's what it was; they were all wearing the same neon green t-shirts) and they have restrooms.  After taking advantage of this last opportunity not to have to use a portopotty for the next 35 miles, I got back on the bike and headed south.

I continued to pass through some beautiful scenery and saw some wildlife, too.  A deer who watched me closely as I biked past, a few turtles on a log in the canal, a young deer who darted off into the woods, and a lot of squirrels, one of whom ran right in front of my bike causing me, quite irrationally, to shout at the squirrel: "Look out!"

The one downside to the trail, other than its bumpiness which has a detrimental effect on your backside, is that it is so flat.  You have to pedal non-stop; there's no coasting. With rolling terrain, you spend some energy going up, but you get to save it on the way down and give your legs a break for a little while.  No such luck on this leg (which was something I'd remembered from my trip up here with Michelle and Rachel a year ago).  And somewhere south of White's Ferry, my legs started to feel it.

There weren't many other cyclists along the path—between Great Falls and Harpers Ferry it is somewhat deserted—but every once in a while I'd come upon a few bikers and would pass them.  So, laden down as I was with a heavy bike and tired legs, I was still doing pretty well and that made me feel good.  A few more miles down the road, I passed the Missourians and waved again, figuring that since they were more likely to stop than I, I probably wouldn't see them again.

Which was a fairly logical conclusion to come to until I got another flat tire.  I noticed that the back end of the bike was behaving somewhat slippery in that it wasn't quite holding firm with the road: a sure sign of an under-inflated tire.  Since this was the same tire I'd replaced yesterday, I worried that perhaps my patching job had not gone well and that maybe there was a slow leak.  So, I took my hand pump and pumped the tire back up to a reasonable pressure and biked away.  But soon, the tire was deflating again and I knew that whatever it was, it wasn't a slow leak.  So, I pulled off to the side of the path, flipped my bike upside down and began, yet again, to effect repairs.  I was doing pretty well, actually: I found the hole in the tube and circled it with pen (you'd be amazed how quickly you can lose a hole if you don't do this).  I even found the offending sharp object poking through the tire and began the process of patching the tube, which if you've never done it before involves the following: using sandpaper to rub the tube almost raw near the site of the puncture; applying vulcanizing agent to the tube and to the back of the patch; waiting about 5 minutes for the agent to dissolve the rubber; placing the patch over the hole and pressing down with a firm object; peeling the plastic sheeting off the patch and voilà, your tube is patched.  I also did this for the inside of the tire as well.

Around this time the Missourians biked by and used the opportunity to take a standing break (remember what I told you about the bumpy trail).  They were quickly followed by two National Park Service guys patrolling the trail.  After a couple minutes the Missourians rode off to head to Great Falls and the NPS guys checked to make sure I was okay.  These two were something of a comedy team: one, shorter and older with a think New England accent; the other, taller and thinner with a deep booming voice.  The New Englander said, "To do what you're doing, a person needs to have the materials, the knowledge, and the tools."  He was satisfied to discover that, in fact, I had all three and that I seemed to know what I was doing.  By this time, I'd already patched both tube and tire and they helped me put it back on the bike.  Their biggest help was that they had a much faster pump than I had.  Theirs was more akin to a traditional bike pump: stand it up, put your feet on it and use the plunger; whereas mine could require hundreds of pumps just to get it up to a decent pressure. Within a couple minutes, we had my tire inflated and I was on my way.

I was only five miles away from Great Falls, which is the breakwater for the Potomac, where it ceases to be an estuary that flows in an out with the tides and turns in to a proper river that flows in only one direction.  The Missourians had said they would stop there for a snack but as I biked past the falls, I didn't see them there.  Now, I was only 14 miles away from the end of the trail, so I decided to make one last push. I even passed a couple of bikers who were in pretty good shape and then used the idea of that competition to go as fast as I could and not get passed myself.  I told you I had a competitive streak; and mostly I use it for this kind of self-motivation.

Eventually, the towpath runs alongside the Capital Crescent trail, a paved bike path that runs along an old rail bed all the way to Bethesda and Silver Spring.  When it came along side, I switched over to that trail, pretty much done with the sand and gravel and longing for pavement. Finally, an hour and a half after fixing my tire, I emerged onto K Street in Georgetown and was only a mile and a half away from home. Within a few minutes I was in front of my building and then in the lobby, where my neighbor, Mr. Herman, who I mentioned in Day 1's post, was there.  "You made it, Reverend," he said to me. "On that heavy bike, in this heat!"  He seemed happy that I'd had a successful trip.  I was too.

I was glad that I had been able to reprise my success from the previous year's trip to Albany.  It's helpful to know that something you've done isn't a fluke.  I got into my apartment and discovered that I had some food here.  That was a great find.  And then I jumped into the shower, bike clothes and all, and washed 62 miles of dust, mud, dirt and bugs off of me as I peeled the layers.  I took the chance to note that I have the stupidest tan now: it's like a farmer tan except that it also goes from about 3/4 of the way down my thighs to right above my ankles.  Ridiculous.

Anyway, I am off to go grab some food (unlike last year, my dad wasn't waiting for me at the end with a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs) and then I look forward to crashing on the couch later on.  Don't have to be up for anything tomorrow morning, so I'm free to just... sleep.

Thanks for following along!

Fun facts and figures:

Total Miles Traveled: 348.2
Average Miles per Day: 58
States/Districts Traveled Through: 4
Approximate number of bottles of water/Gatorade drunk: 35
Number of days it takes to listen to Rush's entire catalog: 3
Flat tires fixed: 4
Broken spokes: 0 (thank God)
Tired legs: 2

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Day 6: Harper's Ferry, WV (45 miles)

I had decided to sleep in again a bit today, partly out of a reluctance to leave Berkeley Springs any earlier than I had to. When I woke up, it turned out that that decision made sense for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was that it was thunder storming out at the moment.

And so, I packed up my things, had another wonderful breakfast, and once the rain had let up, I set out on the road. The road out of Berkeley Springs was a gradual incline that turned into a couple of long, steep ascents. From there, the ride turned into some lovely rolling terrain that occasionally went through some beautiful forested areas. At times the roads were curvy and the descents felt like riding a roller coaster. This, combined with the fact that the weather was overcast and not as hot as it had been on other legs of the trip, though, due to the rain, it was more humid than it had been.

After one last, long incline into the town of Hedgesville, built for some reason at the top of a large hill (I mean, what is this Edoras?), the route turned into a long downhill and then turned into relatively flat going after that with some uphills, but much easier and shorter. After crossing I-81 the terrain eventually turned into broad farmland that at times looked like an Andrew Wyeth painting. Or maybe it was N.C. Wyeth. Who was it who painted that painting of the woman lying in the field with the barn in the background? I am pretty sure I biked past that barn.

The rest of the road was pretty easy and enjoyable, but suddenly it began to rain. At first it was light and enjoyable, especially considering the heat and the wind of previous days. But then suddenly, the skies opened up and I got soaked. That, in itself is not a big deal, but the road becomes a whole lot more difficult to bike when it rains and your bike is laden with an extra 30-40 pounds in gear. There was a some kind of building next to me that had an overhang near the parking lot. So, I turned into the parking lot and wound up standing under the awning of the Fellowship Bible Church. A woman working in the office came out and invited me in to stay dry and wash up in the rest room. A few minutes later, a church volunteer came by and wound up talking with me for a few minutes about my trip before taking me to the kitchen to get me some ice and water for my water bottles. Finally the rain let up and I got underway again, grateful to my hosts. I guess I was hoping to have had that kind of experience at one of the United Methodist Churches I'd stopped at on the other legs of my journey, but I'd never found anyone at them. Oh well, next bike trip perhaps.

As I turned onto US-340 headed toward Harpers Ferry, the rain let up completely and I was making good time. There was one last, large hill that I had to climb and I was getting psyched up to make the ascent, when suddenly I heard that whhit-whitt-whitt sound and looked down and saw another flat tire. About 500 feet behind me was a farm stand and flea market grounds so I turned and walked back down the shoulder to the farm stand to effect repairs.

I'd like to pause here for a moment to talk about shoulders on roadways. When I tell people that I'm making a trip like this they'll ask how I can ride on country roads with no shoulder, etc. But, I have to say, that between the two-lane country roads with 6-inch gap between the white line and the edge of the road and the four-lane road with wide shoulders, I'll take the country lane. People are already driving more slowly, on the lookout for sudden turns in the roadway, the surface is smooth and easy to bike, and in my experience, the motorists are generous and thoughtful when it comes to passing. But on the larger roads with wide shoulders, there is nothing slowing down the drivers and the shoulders themselves are full of gravel and other debris. In fact, I am convinced that the two flat tires I've had have been the result of something I rode over in just such a shoulder. So, unless the states are going to start spending resources on clearing out the shoulders, I'll take the country lanes. Oh, and while we're on the subject, there's a awful lot of roadkill on the roads in Virginia and West Virginia, and much of it has been there a while—some were down to skeletons. And a fair number of snakes, which seemed unusual to me. Anyway, back to our story...

So, I asked the farm stand proprietors if I could use one of the empty flea market tables to fix my bike and they said that would be fine. So, I went back and performed a tire patching job on my back tire. I checked the inside of the tire near where the hole in the tube had been and there was nothing, only a small hole. So, I placed a patch on the tube but was having trouble getting it to inflate. That's when I noticed the second, larger hole in the tube. So I just threw the tube away and broke out one of the spares I had with me. I put that tube on and got back underway and headed back up that hill. On the other side of that hill was a nice 7% downgrade, but I wasn't really able to enjoy it because I kept hearing the same whitt-whitt-whitt sound. I couldn't believe it. But fortunately, the hotel was at the bottom of the hill, so I turned into the lot, and as I did, I noticed that whenever the tire would go through a puddle, little bubbles would come out.

So, after I got my room, I took the tire off again. I realized right away that while I had checked the tire where the first hole in the tube had been, I never checked the tire at the point where the second larger hole had been found. While there was nothing in the hole sticking out (nail, staple, piece of glass, etc.) the tire had been significantly damaged such that the whole itself was probably what caused the puncture in the tube. So, this time I patched both the tube and the tire and they seem to be holding. They just have to get me home to DC tomorrow down the towpath.

After I fixed the tire, I took a much needed shower and walked the mile into town to have dinner at the Secret Six Tavern in Harper's Ferry, a favorite dinning destination of the AU Methodists whenever we're on retreat at Camp Manidokan in Maryland across the river. While there I met a cyclist couple who were on a trip from Pittsburgh to the Atlantic. They've done trips like this all across the country and flew to Pittsburgh to make the trip. They're the first cyclists besides myself that I've seen this entire trip. They're on the way to D.C. for the next leg of their journey. I have no idea what time they're leaving tomorrow but already the competitive streak in me has been triggered and I want to pass them on the trail at some point tomorrow. We'll see. Given that tomorrow is along a familiar, flat (hopefully not too rain-soaked and muddy) tree-shaded trail that ends at my apartment, I don't have to leave too early and can sleep in as late as I want to on Friday to rest up.

It's hard to believe that I am one day away from finishing this 340 mile trek. Only 66 miles and my second summer bike trip will be at an end. Alright, off to relax before my final leg.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Day 5: Berkeley Springs, WV (0 miles)

I did not ride my bike today.

Here's what I did instead: Slept in. Had a delicious breakfast. Sat on the porch and read and wrote a bit. Dangled my feet in cool spring water in the park downtown. Had lunch. Bought postcards. Dangled my feet a little more. Had some ice cream. Got a massage (perhaps the best of my life). Sat in the hot spring mineral water at the Roman baths. Took lots of pictures. Had an amazing dinner at Tari's in town. Took another (and probably final) jacuzzi bath. Relaxed. Enjoyed my vacation immensely.

Some pictures of some of the foregoing follow:

Monday, August 1, 2011

Day 4: Berkeley Springs, WV (51.5 miles)

So, never let me end a blog post by saying, "Tomorrow should be a fair amount easier." I was just asking for it.

I set out this morning and it was a little warmer than it had been the day before and definitely a bit more humid. But as the humidity usually burns off somewhat as the day progresses, I wasn't too worried. The first leg of the journey took me up US-522 on what was pretty similar terrain to stretches yesterday and the first 15 miles passed without much incident. I have noticed, that the map application on my phone under-reports the distances to places (it told me that I had only traveled 20 miles the day before when I had traveled 29). So, I stopped for my first break/second breakfast/elevensies at what I thought was 20 miles in, but was in reality only 17. (I was making the determination as to where to stop based on how far I had left to go.) I grabbed some food high in carbs, proteins, and sodium (not wanting to sweat out all my water), rested for a bit and then headed on.

From this point, however, the trip became much more difficult. For one reason, I was mistaken in assuming that most of the hills had been dealt with yesterday. There were still a fair number of hills to climb today and these hills were not quick ups and downs or long gradual climbs and long descents. These were long, steeper climbs, and while not as steep as yesterday's final ascent before the downhill into Front Royal, these were far more numerous and many more of these hills rated a higher grade rating. To wit (the shaded parts are the problem sections):

But for another reason, these hills, while challenging, were far more difficult than they should have been. That was due primarily to the wind. At first I thought it was not possible that I was heading into another headwind. When I traveled south to Culpepper on Friday, there was a northward wind that often slowed me up. Then yesterday, as I turned east from Sperryville, a westward blowing wind hit me. And so this morning, when a south-eastward blowing wind came at me I thought that perhaps it was just a function of my own velocity. But the trees whipping around on the side of the road convinced me it was no illusion. I don't know how to gauge the speed of a wind that is blowing right at you. I left all that equipment back in my earth science class in 9th grade. But if I had to guess, I'd say 10-15 mph, though the trees were getting blown around pretty hard. The wind was so strong that it made any ascent of mine that much more difficult. I can usually climb a reasonable grade in the highest gear (21st, or 3rd in the front and 7th in the back). If I'm tired, or it's a little steeper, I might downshift to 19th (3rd & 5th), steeper still 3rd & 3rd. On a steep climb like yesterday's, I had downshifted to 3rd & 1st (15th) and even 2nd & 1st. (Lower than that I dare not go for the sake of my own self-esteem.) Today, I found that on relatively manageable grades I was having to downshift to 3rd & 1st, usually a gear reserved for steep grades and really tired legs. Of course, when you're in that low of a gear, you aren't moving very fast, if I could have moved fast in any event.

But worse yet was that on the downside of those same huge hills, I couldn't get any speed. I couldn't ever just coast down the hill and rest my legs for a bit because the wind would blow so strong that I would almost come to a stop. Now, this was most unfair. My bike isn't terribly aerodynamic when it's empty—it's a Raleigh hybrid, perfect for the city and has been turned into a fine touring bike—but when it's loaded with saddlebags it has a completely different wind profile. And so, I was being alternatively slowed down or buffeted from side to side. And if a truck came along there would be that turbulence, too. Now, I will say that the overwhelming majority of truckers would pull into the far lane as they passed me, giving me a wide berth, but every once in a while, some jackass would pass right by me and the turbulence compounded the already difficult going.

I wound up stopping again at another Methodist church to sit for a time under a shade tree. It was a charming little church with a historic cemetery right next to it and a lovely view out onto the valley. I guess I keep stopping at these churches because I hope to run into someone, like the pastor and, you know, conference a bit. But all the UMCs I've stopped at haven't had anyone around. So that's been a little disappointing but is the subject of another blogpost for another time on the need to create community with our churches. Anyway... here's a view from the back of Wesley's Chapel UMC:

Not too long after resting at this church (where I did not fill my bottles from their outdoor spigot, by the way--I bought some cold water at a gas station a mile down the road), the terrain started to level out and then go gradually down hill. There were a few more uphills, but as I neared the West Virginia border, the terrain became a little easier.

Finally, at the West Virginia border, the road narrowed to two lanes and banked off to the north. Would this change how this strong wind was affecting my riding? Nope. Not in the slightest. The hills were longer but more gradual with longer descents as well. At times the wind would actually stop for a few moments and in those moments it was like getting a surge of energy. It was almost like being pushed from behind all of the sudden, because my legs were able to drive my bike at their usual effort rate which was much more efficient than it had been.

The final approach into Berkeley Springs was a sustained, gradual downhill that was all but negated by the wind. But at long last I arrived in the downtown and discovered that the Bed and Breakfast that I'd booked was three blocks up a side street... up a ridiculously steep hill. I walked my bike up.

The B&B is wonderful. It's charming and welcoming. The room I am staying in is spacious, has a nice desk for writing right by the windows, a bath with one of those ringed shower curtains, and has a side room in which there is a jacuzzi. The proprietors are very nice and the really great thing about Berkeley Springs is that all the water comes from the same springs that made this a famous spa town. And so the first order of business was to soak in that jacuzzi and let those healing spa waters do their work. And hydrating myself with delicious spring water that comes right out of the tap is amazing.

At one point this afternoon, around 5, the skies opened up and it began to thunder. I lay on the bed to read a bit, figuring I'd go to dinner once it let up, and zonk, I was out. I did get up a little later, grabbed some dinner in town, spied out where I'd get my massage tomorrow and came back. (Oh, by the way, there is a United Methodist Church about a block from here and another one three blocks further along.) I am looking forward to getting a good night's sleep, not having to get on the road early tomorrow, and, apparently, at a B&B, they make breakfast for you. Who knew?

Thanks to Laura Arico for suggesting this as a destination on my bike ride. It's been four long days with two more to go, but I am already enjoying the first bit of my two night stay here in Berkeley Springs. Who knows, I may have found a new place to come for my post-Easter mini vacations.

(For a map of today's route, visit: